Thursday, March 01, 2007

No Easy-Off needed

Hashem, Hashem, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in goodness and truth, preserving mercy until the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and not cleansing the guilty ["venakeh lo yenakeh"]... (Shemot 34:6-7 - next week's parsha)

We usually cut off the list of God's 13 attributes two words earlier than is grammatically correct (and 14 words before the end of the Biblical sentence). Thus we get to say that God "cleanses" us of sin, undoubtedly a good thing. But isn't it slightly disturbing that the original text says that God does NOT "cleanse" us?

It turns out that to "cleanse" sin, in the original sense in which Tanach uses it, is not all what we mean today. As proof, see Yirmiyahu 46:28 (the last line of the haftarah for parshat Bo). It reads: "Fear not, my servant Yaakov, says God, for I am with you. I will fully destroy the nations to which I have dispersed you, but I will not fully destroy you; I will punish you by measure, but I will not cleanse you ['nakeh lo enakecha']". Exactly the same expression, and here "cleansing" clearly means annihilation, as in the modern term "ethnic cleansing".

So "not cleansing" is the merciful trait after all, and the verse in Shemot makes perfect sense. Though we perhaps deserve to be annihilated, we will in fact not be. Does that mean that during Selichot, we're reciting a NON-merciful trait? Well, if you go by the literal Biblical meaning, then yes. If you go by the modern meaning of "cleansing" (and by modern I mean last 2000 years or so), then no. As we recite it, "cleansing" refers to our sin and not to us. It is true that we have abandoned the Biblical dictionary definition for our own definition, but of course the thematic meaning is pretty close to the same.

See also my last post about the 13 attributes.

And by the way, I think I did somewhat better than the mean on my exam. Not quite the grade I needed or hoped for, but not a total disaster either. I might not even need to retake as part of Moed Bet.

And everyone have an easy fast.

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